By Sarah Colson
Some of the eight extraordinary women being inducted Oct. 26 into the Tennessee Women’s Hall of Fame include a former NASA astronaut and surgeon, the first female chief justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court, a civil rights activists, and a cancer survivor. And among them will sit former school teacher and Johnson Citian Carol Transou.
Transou taught history for 25 years at Science Hill High School—a career that has had its many blessings and at times, its difficulties.
“I started out teaching because that’s what women of my generation did,” Transou, who began her career in Knoxville, said, “and surprisingly enough, I found that I just loved it.”
Transou said that most teachers have a hard time the first year of their careers. That was not the case, however, for her. She described her first students as “wonderfully bright.”
“By my students I was taught,” she said. “The second year of teaching, I made up in creativeness for what I didn’t know how to do.”
Next, Transou taught in Birmingham, Ala., where she said she taught a class before integration. But perhaps one of her most formative years of teaching was when she and her husband, Bedford, moved to Chattanooga and she volunteered to teach her first integrated class.
“Kids were very responsive to me but it is the hardest job in the world to be a good teacher,” she said. “You work so hard to stimulate interest. It wasn’t unusual for kids to tell me, ‘I just hate history. It’s all those dates and things.’ Well it’s not just all those dates and things. It’s like a movie, a grand movie of our past and I loved that.”
But Transou has done much more in her life than what happened within the walls of a high school classroom. Travel has been a formative aspect in her life since college, when her mother and grandmother gave her the gift of $1,000—just enough funds at that time to send her on a three-month trip to Europe. That trip encouraged her, years later, to start taking a small group of her students to Europe once a year.
“We organized and led the trips and we traveled as a large family,” Transou said. “I did the nurturing and life with the kids and Bedford did all of the arrangements. We’d picnic outside and in bigger cities we’d always go to some great restaurants. That was just very wonderful.”
Transou, who considers herself a feminist, said many of her passions began with those experiences she’s had traveling, teaching and her experience at Lindenwood College for Women where she was the president of the student body and earned her undergraduate degree in history.
“I grew up with a strong mother who had taught school at the age of 16 and who had five children,” she said, “and then I went to a women’s college which was a tremendous influence to me. Girls were not just secretaries there. They’re the presidents of things. There was not the so-called feminist thrust that there was in the ‘70s, but it was clear there that you were expected to learn; you were expected to be a leader in your community.”
Transou said she always tried to instill in her students, especially her female students, that they were in the classroom to work hard, get an education, and then go be whatever they wanted to become.
“We didn’t have a lot of silly foolishness in my class,” she said. “It was ‘sit down, let’s get to work, and you’re going to like this once you learn something.’ What kids often remember about me is that I was different in standing up or expressing what I thought not to offend, but to educate.”
Part of that education came in the form of teaching male students how to respect their female classmates.
“Sometimes when girls would bring announcements in from the office and came up front to give them to me, the boys in the class would whistle and carry on,” Transou recalled. “I didn’t like that and it made the girls very uncomfortable. One time I told some of the boys to come up front and told the girls to have at it.”
Not having any biological children of her own, though claiming dozens of “a-dopted classroom children,” Transou decided to retire in 1992, still in her early fifties, to pursue her passions for women’s rights and advocacy in the local Johnson City community. She became an active member on the East Tennessee Foundation, Sunshine Lady Foundation and Harris Fund of ETF boards. At one of her East Tennessee Foundation meetings, she stood up and asked if anyone would be interested in joining her in the start-up of a women’s fund—a fund specifically to serve low-income women and girls in East Tennessee.
“Four women on that board came up,” Transou said. “One of them was a former student. Those four women and I went to work to build an endowment. We did in one year what some thought impossible—created and funded a Women’s Fund for ETF.”
Transou said she strives to be the type of role model younger women can look up to and find encouragement when they endeavor to do things once considered not possible for women.
“Change comes but change comes with some pain,” she said. “I would like to see a day when women are represented in all areas of life equal to their proportional number in society. I would love to see that day when they’re taken seriously. It does not surprise me when a young woman is intelligent. I want to encourage that; I want to build on that.”
For Transou, the greatest reward is not being inducted into Tennessee Women’s Hall of Fame or the Teacher of the Year award she won in 1987 or even when she was awarded Tennessee’s first Teacher-Scholar award in 1989. For Transou, her greatest reward is seeing her former students go on to accomplish more than she ever has.
“The kids become the lawyers, doctors, ministers—they become those people that lead the community,” she said. “Two of my former students are on the city commission here. One of them is my dentist. My lawyer is a former student, his wife is a former student and I introduced them. And I’m not sure that in a big city you would have all of those intimate connections. This was a good place to be a teacher.”
For a full list of inductees into Tennessee Women’s Hall of Fame, visit tennesseewomen.org/twhof.htm.